Smelt Fishing in Old Kenosha


Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not the fish they are after.

~Henry David Thoreau



I’ve gotten some very nice emails and notes regarding my perch fishing story in “Our Wisconsin” magazine. The story, which is also on my blog, recalls those “good old” days on Lake Michigan when we used to catch buckets of yellow perch throughout the spring and summer. Those days, unfortunately, are long gone as Alewives, Zebra and Quagga mussels, along with over fishing have decimated the yellow perch population in Lake Michigan. There is currently a daily limit of five yellow perch on the lake, and truth be told you’re often lucky to catch one.


I recently had the opportunity to meet one of my readers and his wife. We had a good time kicking around the old perch fishing days along the Kenosha shoreline. We also talked about those great days in the spring, many years ago when we would catch buckets of smelt which had come in to spawn.


We’d catch buckets of them!

The smelt run would usually start shortly after Easter. The little grunions would be in close to shore for about three weeks before heading back out to deep water for the rest of the year. Fisherman up and down the shores of the great lakes would lay in wait for them, when they would swim in close to shore at night to reproduce.


The Kenosha harbor would be lined up with groups of people using dip nets to catch the tasty little buggers. The dip nets were composed of a large square net on a winch. The net would be lowered to the bottom and cranked up every so often to see if the smelt were “in”. Once the smelt were “in” the nets would be cranked up and down frequently and groups of smelt would be scooped out of the net with a smaller dip net. A bright lantern or light was used to see what was in the net, and to also attract the smelt. Dip nets were also used up and down the Kenosha shoreline in the “rocks” but it was not as easy to set-up and sure as heck not as comfortable as smelting on the piers.


The smelt fishing parties were great!

It should be mentioned that smelt fishing was the stated reason for going down to the lake and freezing our butts off night after night every spring, however that would not be entirely accurate. Partying…big time partying was as much a part of smelt fishing, if not more than catching the smelt themselves. Vast amounts of alcohol were consumed during the event. Bonfires roared and many portable radios blared out music of one kind or another. Fireworks went off, dogs yelped and yipped and when the run was on, there would be endless yelling and shouting. (On a typical raucous night, several people who fell in would have to be fished out, while on-lookers laughed and cheered)


Artwork by Lenny Palmer, *see note

Many smelters used a sein net to catch the wily little critters. We had a thirty foot long sein which we would walk out into the lake with. After a short pause, the sein net would go down and we would tap our way back to the shore to hopefully find a net full of smelt. As I was usually the shortest guy in our “crew” I was the pivot man who held onto the net while the taller guy went out into the lake and swung around. Often, especially when the lake was rough, waves would break over our chest waders and we would get a good soaking.  As Lake Michigan is never warm, especially on cold spring nights, this is when the alcohol we had consumed, along with our bonfire on shore earned its medal.


Sometimes we’d catch em by the bushel!

There were several locations where we seined in Kenosha; Eichleman Park, Simmons Island next to the north pier, and Barnes Creek in Carol Beach were our favorite spots. Sometimes we’d catch so many smelt that we would drop off buckets of them at local taverns on our way home. This, of course, was rewarded with many refreshing beverages; and extended the smelt fishing party.


Once home everyone got to work cleaning the smelt. The method to cleaning smelt involved a scissors and your thumb. The smelt would be cut open from the belly to the gills. The guts were squeezed out by inserting the thumb and running it through the length of the open smelt. The smelt cleaning operation often ran well into the next morning, depending on how well we did. Of course, the consumption of various beverages continued during the cleaning procedure and also after wards, as a batch of fresh smelt would be battered and fried.


That’s great!!

As with the perch, fried smelt would be served with coleslaw, bread, and the beverage of your choice. Finer dining was never had!!


And, unfortunately the same factors that caused the decline of the lake perch also caused the disappearance of the smelt in the southern portion of Lake Michigan. However as a testament to the popularity of the event, every spring parties are still held at night in many former smelt fishing locations; albeit without the guest of honor… the smelt.





This article is dedicated to my long time smelt fishing buddies now passed;

Jim Booth, Don Booth and Bob Stevens

Hopefully out there somewhere dipping their nets into the “heavenly waters”.


Note: Painting by Lenny Palmer added on 9/15/2019

Lenny’s Artwork may be purchased by contacting him at


(click on any photo to enlarge)


About the Author

Joe Campolo Jr.

Joe Campolo, Jr. is an award winning author, poet and public speaker. A Vietnam War Veteran, Joe writes and speaks about the war and many other topics. See the "Author Page" of this website for more information on Joe. Guest writers on Joe's blogs will have a short bio with each article. Select blogs by category and enjoy the many other articles available here. Joe's popular books are available thru Amazon, this website, and many other on-line book stores.


  1. Hi Joe –

    Really enjoyed your story about smelt fishing – sounds like a good time. Too bad the perch and smelt are gone because of over-fishing.


    1. Thanks John, glad you enjoyed the story. Smelt fishing was the best part of spring; really miss it.

  2. Hey Joe, I never smelt Fished but witnessed it a few times. Wasn’t it true that if you were a new comer you had to bit the heads off of the first catch? I can see Jim Booth doing that. Great story. ?

  3. I remember catching huge perch with my dad off the rocks back in the day. Sad to hear that’s not the case anymore. I did LOVE smelt fishing. Always a good time. Lots of memories. I think my least favorite was sleeping on the lighthouse pier for salmon o rama. That cement is COLD in the morning and it’s not a short walk back to I miss those days with my dad. He lives 6 hours away now. Thanks to you I can reminisce about those days!

    1. Good to hear from you Amanda. Yes, those were the days….and even though we froze our butts off early morning perch fishing and late night smelt fishing, we sure do miss it!

  4. Wow. Brought back great memories. I remember one night I took the head light out of my truck and rigged it to the top of the net, lowering it into the water. After three pulls we had so many smelt we had to quit. It took us over nine hours to zip clean them. And a lot of beer. Best times ever. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Glad you like the story Gary. Smelt fishing was good times. I hung onto my seine net until just last year, hoping the little buggers would come back.

      1. Hi Joe, I enjoyed the story. I started smelt fishing 4 years ago. I went to Ashland to learn the ropes and did ok. the following seasons were better. Our best 1 night of smelting was 25 5gal buckets, We stopped because we had no room in the car. We got a few out of lake Michigan this year, not many. Lake superior has big runs, I didn’t time it right this year. Hopefully next year we will. I have an 8X8 dip net and a 25 foot seine. Will be looking for a 40 footer from Duluth Nets some day.
        You have an open invitation to join me next season.

        Thank you for the nostalgic trip

        1. Wow,great going on the smelt! Never tried it up there. Glad you enjoyed the story. And thanks for the invite!

          1. It is quite the drive. Six (6) hours to Ashland, another 1.5 hours to Duluth. It isn’t too bad when you have other drivers in the same car. About 3 years ago, I met a team of guys that had 2 truckloads of smelt! All caught in 1 night!!! very impressive, but I’m not wanting that much fish to clean. I would do it if I had buyers for them.

  5. I remember when my 10 yer old daughter learned the value of a Dollar. She cleaned a whole 5 gallon bucket of smelt by herself in 3 hours for $5.00. She used to catch night crawlers at night for me, with a flashlight with a red cellophane with a rubber band over the lens, so as not to spook the crawlers when the light shined on them. She loved to fill the Big coffee cans with crawlers at 5 cents each. LOL

  6. My brother and I would make this an annual event. He sadly committed suicide in 2001. Thank you for the article it brought back some great fun memories. We would set up behind what was then the Holiday Inn or across the harbor by the Coast Guard station. Good times and good friends.

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